The life-death continuum

Parashat Vayechi is an opportunity to meditate on the proximity of life and death.
January 11, 2017

Parashat Vayechi is an opportunity to meditate on the proximity of life and death. In the traditional Torah scroll, Vayechi — which describes the death of Jacob — and the parsha preceding it, Vayigash, are written with no space between them. This unusual phenomenon is called a “closed portion” (“parsha setuma”). Juxtaposing the two so closely could be read as a statement about the contiguousness of mortality and its seeming opposite, immortality. Might this hint at a non-binary understanding of the life-death continuum? 

The paradoxical meaning of the Torah portion’s name strengthens this speculation. Like the parsha Chayei Sarah (The Life of Sarah), which is about the death of Sarah, this portion tells of the death of Jacob, yet bears the name Vayechi (And he lived). Its narrative concerns the death of the patriarch, described as “being gathered to his kin” (Genesis 49:29), and the prophetic blessings (often more like damnings) he gives his sons, seemingly in his effort to continue to influence them beyond his death.

Upon hearing of the death of a beloved, tradition would have us rend our garment and cry out to bless “God the True Judge” (“Baruch Dayan Emet”). However, belief in God’s Truth at that moment may be a tall order. It is more likely that those of us in that position have, in the words of T.S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it towards some overwhelming question.”

And that question is: Where is the deceased? Where does the soul go? And where is God? My answer: They have become one. 

People often think that Judaism is mute on the subject of the afterlife, but they are mistaken. Hints are everywhere. Not only in the names of parshiot, but in lines we study each morning, when we speak of our acts of lovingkindness nourishing us in this world (olam hazeh) and being stored up for us in a kind of piggy bank in heaven (keren kayemeth b’olam haba). 

Another clue is in the prayer we say for the deceased. Not the Kaddishwhich has too many resonances with immortality for this column to contain, but the El Male Rachamim, recited at the funeral, during shiva, and at Yizkor (memorial) services in the years to come. It addresses the “God of Compassion,” imploring that the deceased find deserved rest under the wings of the glory of the divine presence. Entering the word “rachamim/compassion,” we find its root: “rechem/womb.” This implies that the lifetime is a journey from womb to womb, and indicates our earthly task: to stay aligned with the attribute of compassion that infuses this world (olam hazeh) and the next (olam haba). 

We are told that when we say Kaddish, we effect the purgation of the souls of those we have lost. The Zohar tells us, “If not for the righteous in prayer on the other side, the world would not exist for one hour.” Does this not imply a continuing dynamic connection between the worlds?

People always ask me if Judaism believes in life after death. My glib response is that Judaism doesn’t believe in death. I’ve been saying that for years, but I think I have come to understand it only recently. I used to think in terms of the dream scene in “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Grandma Tzeitel comes from the other world to warn her great-granddaughter from marrying the butcher, Lazar Wolf. I had a sense of deceased souls as always hovering. 

I see more now. In Hebrew, the word for “soul” (neshama) and the word for “breath” (nashima) are almost the same. I think this refers to that continuous wind that goes in and out of us. When we breathe in, filling those spaces between the matter that is our bodies, it gives us the illusion of being separate selves, but the continuity of the breath/soul, in both time and space, is much more the truth of the universe. 

Through prayer, meditation and yoga, I have viscerally experienced what I think the Shema has been trying to tell us: Oneness is all there is. I have felt the curtain between life and death — past, present and future — dissolve. In my flesh, I have come to believe that the boundaries are artificial. 

After all, we’re mostly empty space. If we get down to our atomic selves, we discover that we generally consist of holes with tiny, tiny bits of matter spinning through. 

However, since we value matter above all and identify with what we see in the mirror, what we can touch and smell and hold in our embrace, we face death with terror. The hardest human task is transforming the impermanent physical connection with those we love to the spiritual connection that is everlasting.

As Prufrock said: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.” 

Rabbi Anne Brener, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and spiritual director, is a professor at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.

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